It comes down to repeat listens for me. That paired with where I am creatively. I reach out for the stuff that challenges me as a listener, even if it simply requires the challenge of focus. There’s those albums that are meant to be headphone excursions while others just want to be played while you go about your day to day. So whether I was cleaning the homestead or napping with my one year old or in my studio restringing the lot of guitars or even just all the bloody driving I had to contend with this year. These were the albums that developed lasting realtionships with me. They’re in no particular order, except for my absolute top choice, I’l save it for the end.
It’s an excitng list for me in so many ways. Excited to be pushung myself to write about music again but even more so, I’m really stoked on the new discoveries this year. Whether they made the list or not. 2015 found me desperately moving away from a lot traditional North American music. I just felt that a lot of music had turned stale. Maybe it’s me, things just weren’t provoking me the right way or getting me stimulated any more. I found myself seeking out new labels and digging deeper into genres and sounds I had always loved but had difficulty discovering new artists with the same ease as say western material.
It’s not say that I haven’t found any new western artists to fall in love with or take up space in the record collection. Discovering a few new labels was an added bonus. While others I was loyal towards kept it that way with new releases this year. But more so a genre thing, just inquiring into the obscure more than ever. Soundscapes, rhythms, melodies and structures that made me curious again about being a listener as well as a musician. So here’s hoping something on this page finds itself winning you over and leading your ears astray.
AMARA TOURÉ – 1973 – 1980 Analog Africa
I always anticipate anything from Frankfurt-based label Analog Africa. They’re known for specializing in raw, funky, ropical and pyschedelic sounds from Africa and LatinAmerica from the 60’s and 70’s. They pull out all the stops for this exceptional anthology rescuing the work of Afro-Cuban pioneer Amara Touré from near extinction. Over the years Touré slotted African and Cuban sounds together like pieces of a jigsaw, bringing spirited, West African mandingue into the wide, brassy arms of Latin instrumentation. Touré has been off the grid in recent years and his music is quite literally impossible to get hold of. Presented in a ’60s style gatefold cover and featuring a multicolour silkscreen print, the packaging and detail is as magnificent as the music within.
COLLEEN – Captain of None Thrill Jockey
A new find for me, considering this is the sixth release from french musician Cécile Schott, aka Collen. Entirely rcorded, mixed and produced from her home in San Sebastian, Spain. Unexpected to find that she focuses her songwriting around an instrument that saw it’s heyday centuries ago. On Captain of None, Colleen takes the baroque viola da gamba and runs it through a series of delays and loopers as she plucks the instrument into a mesmerizing stream. It’s said that nothing resembles the human voice like the instrument of choice for Cécile. Rather than bowing it traditionally, Schott tunes it like a guitar and plucks it’s strings.
Instruments like hand drums and melodica add layers of shading over the dubby experimental arrangements. Most of the percussive elements are played with chop sticks and a Tibetan metal printing block. Her love for old Lee Perry cassettes lends itself to her dubby production style as well. Cécile uses english for her poeticly discriptive lyrics and their simplicity drives the album as much as the viol. From the looping effects, dub influences, baroque instrumentation and dreamy vocals it all gets glued into a digital mosiac that feels just as much organic as it does mythic and internal. Captain of None is Cécile beckoning you into her world.
EVAN CAMINITI – Meridian Thrill Jockey
For years, Evan Caminiti has been known for making guitar drone music as one half of Barn Owl. A personal favourite of mine. Much like his work in his duo, Caminiti’s solo outings were constructed of heavily processed and reconfigured guitars. So much so that it would be difficult to point that out, even after subsequent listens. On his fifth solo release Meridian, Caminiti composed the nine tracks on modular synths. Working in subtle beats, bass tones and field recordings. At 41 minutes, each of the nine tracks have a single word title, to evoke the overall mood, shape and texture of the song. Most of this new material came from performing live with electronics, as he does and not with a laptop.
It’s an album begging to be played loud. So the pulses course through your body. (The title “Meridian” ostensibly references the idea of energy’s movement through the body on paths called meridians.) It does work in this regard, but you can also listen closely with headphones; this way, the compositions feel endlessly deep. Many—foggy and droning, always sparkling and elegant. The bulk of the tracks have this great ghostly -not all there- vibe. They drift and never feel hurried and at times seem as though another element should be present but in the end the soft fuzzy edges are better left untampered. As if you’re seeing them in the dark.
GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR – Asunder, Sweet & Other Distress
The last time Godspeed You! Black Emperor released an album (Allelujah!Don’t Bend Ascend) it wasn’t really comprised of new material the cult act had written specifically for the release. It was material they had been playing live since the early 2000’s, their most prolific period. Capturing it on record and releasing it was more reannouncing their presence after a long hiatus.
There was something comforting about the release of Asunder…, beyond the fact that it was new GY!BE music. Perhaps it was how familiar it was to hear. Since any of the songs recorded for Asunder could have found their way on any previous Godspeed album. It shows consistency. They’re not known for change, it’s just not their way. Often imitated but no one sounds quite like them. The shifts on this record involve pivots more than actual movement: At points, guitars are unusually prominent and the music feels a bit heavier. It’s also their shortest album. But beyond a few such tweaks, the album is Godspeed to its core, moving from thin drones to Wagnerian pomp and circumstance and back again over long, patient stretches.
Like any GY!BE album, sequencing and flow is everything. Just four tracks make up this album but it’s more like three movements. The first and third are typical fanfare. Slowly building refrains and crashing climaxes while the middle movement is consisted of the the second and third track. At 16 minutes it’s a behemoth with drones, guitar feedback and fragments of broken strings. Setting the album up this way is a smart move. It allows the entirety to breathe and suggests more variety than otherwise.
Godspeed are still a band that focus on instrumental pieces meant to move you, using only the raw power of their music. In a space where sound is the primary context it lends itself to a different type of transaction. You have to drop the guard while they transform gutteral emotion into music. They’re still on point in my opinion.
FOG LAKE – Victoria Park Orchid Tapes
If you’re into things that sound like they belong to the soundtrack of your lucid dreams, then Aaron Poewll’s Fog Lake is something on that list. The St. John’s Newfoundland based act, is informed by both a beautiful melancholy and an ungraspable yet quenching nostalgia. There’s a misty eyed contemplative emotive dripping from the corners. Every creak of weathered porch board, each cloud of sigh slowly presents itself into the cold light of day. Don’t think of this a dour experience. Powell maintains a balance in his music, it’s just delivered with a furrowed brow with enough sight to know when to open it all up.
Victoria Park feels cloudy but colourful too. A carnival ride behind frosted glass, like trying to recall a tehnicolour dream in the forgetfulness of morning. The tracks drone on and hum, spectral voices and thrumming piano chords make a little mystery in a blurry but entrancing collage. The collection is consistently enchanting. The album’s single ‘Shanty Town’ whose drone lives like a spangle by a distant snare should be all you need to be sold. If you require more, Victoria Park’s closer ‘Dog Years’ is beyond haunting and comes with a mesmerising video.
ESMERINE – Lost Voices Constellation Records
Out of all of the many Godspeed You! Black Emperor splinter projects, Esmerine have always been the most interesting to me. Their name may not be as widely known or as A Silver Mt Zion (and their multiple ensuing variations), but their musical journey since their 2003 debut release has been a consistently rewarding and occasionally surprising one. On Lost Voices they move away fom the overriding chamber ensemble sound that dominated much of their previous work, to take on some other unexplored forms. Mainly in harnessing the electric guitar.
Sure it doesn’t sound like a major altering decision but when you’re a band that avoided a traditional instrument for so long, once it rears it’s head in your music, it is a bombastic change. Take for example the independence and points of difference in Esmerine’s music, the opening track on Lost Voices is characteristaclly morose. Deserted violin sounds that lay heavy during the beginning end up giving way to explosive peaks of guitar. Sure that’s a combination that’s been done before but it isn’t any less appealing. ‘A River Runs Through This City‘ (my favourite), keeps up with a purposeful intent. Shrouded in dark allusions and shaded forms. These opening pair of tracks set the tone and also highlights another album trait, namely the balance between drawn out tension and immediacy of ideas. Anyone should be swept up in it by now.
RICHARD GINNS – Until The Morning Comes Eilean Records
Eilean Records and it’s roster was a new discovery for me this year and mighty pleasant one at that. They’ve released so many great albums this year. The label is run by Mathias Van Eecloo (Monolyth & Cobalt) with design by Rémi Verdier. Each release has a number that corresponds to a point on a map; a season; a color; and soil samples (seen only in photograph for now). This attention to detail, along with a unified cover aesthetic, has allowed the label to make a large impact in a short period of time. It’s no surprise two albums are making my year end list.
First we have the Manchester sound artist Richard Ginns. His newest release Until The Morning Comes is a more autumnal excursion that exudes stillness and tranquility and finds a perfect home on the brilliantly eclectic Eilean Rec. label. Ginns has made an album of true soundscapes woven together with tape loops (reel to reel tape and cassette), guitar (electric, classical & acoustic), music box, pedals, and other electronics, found-sounds and field recordings. Ginns also manages to fabricate an oneiric worldThrough the eight tracks that comprise the record, Ginns fabricates a complete oneiric world of calm empyrean tones and delicate textures as the titles eloquently imply – ‘Threads of Light and the Quiet Hum’, When Sun Rays and Frosty Mist’, ‘Blossom’, etc. Only during the closing track, ‘Cycles’, do the sounds of a man-made world begin to unobtrusively seep back into our consciousness. It is hard to overstate the sense of quietude and well-being that these carefully constructed pieces engender.
LE BERGER – Music for Guitar & Patience Home Normal
Am I ever a sucker for atmosphere. I’ve burrowed myself into some really fantastic ambient and experimental sonic avenues this year, much of this list proves that. When I first heard Le Berger it was instantly known that repeat visits would occur. There’s just something about music that immediately begins to turn your surroundings into film. Random occurrences. Sunlight bursting through treetops. Accidental beauty. These things are not just confined to nature and landscape.
Le Berger is Montreal’s Samuel Landry. He sought out to make new material, using unused guitar samples from fifteen years ago became the sole source material, providing the album with a wistful, folky kind of ambience. While ambient textures provide a blissfully drowsy background, the guitar evokes and mirrors the calm feeling of leaves rustling in the breeze, or light on the ocean exploding into millions of individual flecks as the waves come in to shore. As random as they may be, it never startles the listener. It is music mirroring life. A work born from a marriage of chance, randomness and composed elements.
These are lengthy tracks, full excursions. Clocking in at 29:32, 14:21 & 17:55 they warrant at least one dedicated session with some headphones.
ALIF – Aynama-Rtama Nawa Recordings
Alif is the collective sound of five musicians at the forefront of independent music in the Arab world, and Nawa Recordings is a label dedicated to bringing new alternative music from the Arab world and elsewhere. Conceived in 2012 and taking its name from the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. Aynama-Rtama traces a complex labyrinth of genres, sounds and emotions, rendered as a unique postcard of the tumultuous rollercoaster-ride of its time. The band’s wide ranging influences along with their unified and intriguing energy, give birth to a soundscape that is at once familiar and unknown.
Alif succeed at presenting a musical experience that goes beyond conventional genre framing, to create an identity found in neither Arabic nor Western realms, without falling in the ubiquitous trap of literal fusion. The initial dizzying, and even melancholic, effect of Alif’s music stems from band’s attempt to alienate the mainstream. This estrangement is ushered by the instrumentation more than the melody, creating a feeling that the band’s members are dangerously adventurous on the verge of major change.
LAKE MARY – And The Birds Sing In Chorus First Eilean Records
The second Eilean release to win a place in my heart this year. Lake Mary’s And The Birds Sing In Chorus First. This is a completely and utterly bewitching album by musician Chaz Prymek, who played, recorded, mixed, and mastered this album of pieces for banjo and acoustic guitar on his own. The birth child of almost four years of disparate recording while travelling through western America. With the right kind of ears you can hear the seasons within each of the songs. The sound manipulation here is very subtle and spare, reaching its peak, honestly, on the shimmering overlapped textures.
This one comes highly recommended to all enthusiasts of experimental takes on the American fingerstyle-guitar tradition. Asymmetrical bliss is kind of how to sum this album up.
XAOS – Xaos Independent Records ltd
To be Greek means to be part of a people whose collective identity often seems to exist, for better or worse, in several historical epochs simultaneously, from the ancients to the Byzantines and onward into the present. This is an idea that recurs in the work of some of our greatest poets and authors, but it’s a rather hard idea to translate into music — but it’s what I thought of immediately upon first hearing this moody and gorgeous album.
It’s an eponymous release by the duo Xaos (pronounced “HAH-ohs,” it translates to “chaos”), a collaboration between Ahetas, an electronic music composer, keyboardist and painter andDubulah, a German-born producer and artist of Greek-English parentage who has collaborated with artists like Dub Colossus and Samuel Yirga.On each track, they carefully build layers of swirling, moody sound, referencing many points in the Greek experience with instruments like the Pontic lyraand the delicate kanonaki zither blended with modern electronics, guitars and keyboards. But you don’t have to think about such cultural specificities; just sink deep down into Xaos’ wine-dark washes of sound.
DANIEL MENCHE & MAMIFFER – Crater Sige Records
There’s got to be at least one album that kind of freaks you out. The one you won’t listen to in the dark, alone. Crater was that for me this year. The album’s bookending pieces, “Calyx” and “Maar,” make for the two most conventionally musical songs on the album. Both feature Turner’s guitar and Coloccia’s piano playing complimentary melodies, as processing (by I assume the hand of Menche) pushes both into distorted, at times abrasive territory, and then back again. Even though the resulting sound is by no means traditionally beautiful, that hint of chaos is a splendid additional facet to the songs. The lengthier pieces that make up the core of the record feature significantly less in the way of traditional instrumentation.
For a record that was created by, as Menche puts it, friends just hanging out, recording and then eating pizza, Crater has a massive number of layers, both sonically and in mood as well, that belie its humble origin. Moods shift from gawking at beautiful soundscapes to disquieting, imposing monsters of heaviness lurking in the shadows. But never does Crater drag, and there is not a dull moment to be had as these three amazing artists perform together brilliantly.
SHYE BEN TZUR, RAJASTHAN EXPRESS & JOHNNY GREENWOOD
This was the one for me in 2015. From the documentary to each individual track. Everything on repeat. My love of Eastern music has never been so enamoured.
There are a lot of creative forces to keep track of on Junun. Receiving top billing is the Israeli singer and composer, Shye Ben Tzur, who wrote the songs. Then there’s his backing band: the 19 performers, hailing from distinct Indian-music traditions, who form the Rajasthan Express. And you’ve also got Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood contributing rhythm guitar, bass, keyboards, and drum-programming to the arrangements. Still, aside from the album’s complex backstory and multilingual lyrics (written, variously, in Hebrew, Hindi, and Urdu), Junun is readily approachable on its own.
The result is a mix that includes folk feel and studied arrangements. Naturally, with Greenwood’s participation comes that of longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, who succeeds in presenting this detailed music with precision. While Greenwood’s presence guarantees a certain level of interest, the newsiest takeaways from this album involve the skill of Ben Tzur and the musicians of the Rajasthan Express. The ensemble’s playing and the leader’s compositions make Junun an easy stretch.
In the accompanying documentary of the same name — directed by Paul Thomas Anderson — it becomes even more evident how collaborative this album is. Recorded at Mehrangarh Fort in Rajasthan, India, the musicians would all sit in a circle and perform live together (with the exception of some vocal overdubs). As the camera pans between each musician, it becomes strikingly evident how crucial each role is. Every piece of percussion carries just as much weight as the swoopy-haired guy on guitar who sells out Madison Square Garden.
Anderson’s documentary also does well to highlight the different personalities that make up the cast of collaborators, collectively known as The Rajastahn Express. They are not simply a backing band hired to play the parts, but dynamic musicians each helping steer the direction of the project. If there’s a main player to credit at all, it’d be composer Shye Ben Tzur.
Someone with an eager ear will find beauty in this blend of cultures and styles. It’s a celebration of musicians living, breathing, and learning from one another.